Nov 20, 2013

Computer Labs, Inc.

After taking so many standardized, multiple-choice tests in elementary school, I learned that statements containing “all” or “never” are probably incorrect. So, of course, not “all” analog greats or analog companies trace their footsteps through Boston or Silicon Valley. In the case of Computer Labs from Greensboro, North Carolina, they were home-grown. That is, until Analog Devices acquired them and gave them the appearance of a Boston area analog company.

So who was Computer Labs and why did they appear in North Carolina?

To answer that, we have to go way back to Cleveland in the years before Alexander Graham Bell is credited for inventing the telephone. In 1856 the telegraph was king and George Shawk purchased one of the little shops building equipment for Western Union. Former chief telegraph operator for Western Union, Enos Barton partnered with him and then George sold his share to an Oberlin College physics professor-turned-inventor name Elisha Gray. The Gray and Barton company became Western Electric. Western Electric had very close ties to Western Union in terms of financing, company directors as well as being a key supplier. To prove that timing is everything, on February 14, 1876, Bell filed a patent for his new telephonic device. It arrived at the U.S. patent office only hours before Bell's closest competitor: Elisha Gray (who had sold his interest in Western Electric in 1875 and retired from the business). Western Union sued the much smaller Bell Company on behalf of Gray. And surprisingly, the suit ended in 1879 with Western Union withdrawing from the telephone market and Bell acquiring Western Electric in 1881.

With Bell’s patent eventually expiring in the early 1900s, the pressure was on to continue innovating. So Western Electric's engineering department developed a new “research branch" to cultivate inventors and inventions. Thus was born the organization that would become Bell Laboratories. I will skip over the tremendous achievements by Bell Labs during the two World Wars in the interest of time. In the 1950s, Western Electric had manufacturing facilities across the US, including North Carolina. Known as the “Winston-Salem, North Carolina Works” the facilities in Burlington, Greensboro and several in Winston-Salem were designated for defense electronics. They were heavily involved in manufacturing electronics hardware for Cold War military programs, such as Nike Zeus, Nike Ajax, Nike Hercules. Within the “Works”, the Greensboro “Shops” manufactured missile guidance systems. The designs were initially done mostly at the Bell Labs facility in Whippany, NJ, but Bell Labs established engineering groups at the various Western Electric locations to support the hardware.

And that’s how Bell Labs arrived in North Carolina.

Greensboro native, John Eubanks, received his MSEE from North Carolina State University and went to work at the Greensboro Bell Labs location. Bob Bedingfield, also from Greensboro, was his technician. In the early 1960s they worked on an ADC for the receiver part of the Nike-X radar system. Walt Kester said, “John was one of the smartest engineers I ever met, and I was fortunate enough to work with him for a few years when I joined Bell Labs in 1963.” The converter used a version of Gray code (called “folding” today) patented by F. D. Waldhaur (Bell Labs, Murray Hill, NJ). Walt believes the ADC was supposed to be eventually manufactured by Western Electric, but the calibration procedure and testing was pretty much beyond the capability of the Western Electric support engineers.
Robert Bedingfield
John M. Eubanks

The government acknowledged the importance of Western Electric's defense work in 1956. The culmination of an antitrust case filed by the Department of Justice in 1949, the 1956 consent decree ordered the Bell System to divest all of its non-telephone activities – except those involving national defense. That forced them to agree to confine their manufacturing business to telephone equipment and license any new technologies they developed to others. Of course, that decree ruled out the commercialization of the ADC that Eubanks worked on.

In 1966, John and Bob decided to leave Bell Labs and start Computer Labs. They wanted to do a commercial version of the ADC that not only could be sold to the subcontractors (GE, Raytheon, and MIT Lincoln Labs), but also to other customers. They started out with some financing by a local company that made electronic instruments for the textile industry (Strandberg Engineering) and used their facility as a base of operation. The first employees other than John and Bob were from Bell Labs also, including Buford Goff (engineering/sales), Don Brockman (sales), Gene Boles (draftsman/layout), George Buchanan (manufacturing). Apparently, there were never any hard feelings between Bell Labs and Computer Labs. Computer Labs actually paid royalties to Bell Labs for several years because of the Waldhaur patent. Kester, who also left Bell Labs in 1969 and joined Computer Labs, recalls, “we would get a few $100k NRE to develop a new ADC, and then get production orders, and eventually it would become a standard product. We didn’t have to sell too many systems at $10k each in order to pay salaries to 30 or so employees.”

As the Cold War wound down, most of the Bell Labs employees in NC were transferred to NJ or given early retirement. The Computer Labs products in the early 1970s were mostly rack-mounted instruments, but gradually got into modules, card-level products, and hybrids. Analog Devices purchased Computer Labs in 1978 for the high-speed technology, and John and Bob pretty much retired from the business. Initially it was known as the “Computer Labs Division of Analog Devices,” but that label was dropped. Today, the Greensboro site is a design center focused on integrated circuits.
MOD-815 Video ADC

The footsteps started right there in Greensboro, NC.


NOTES

Photos used with permission of Analog Devices, Inc.

Computers Labs history based on email communications with Walt Kester

"Western Electric and the Bell System, A Survey of Service" edited by Albert B. Iardella, 1964.

"Western Electric", http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Electric

"Manufacturing the Future: A History of Western Electric", Stephen B. Adams and Orville R. Butler, Cambridge University Press, 1999; Reviewed for EH.NET by Eric John Abrahamson, The Prologue Group.

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